If someone randomly walked up to you and started talking about cars speeding into massive soccer balls, I’d like to think many of us would be very confused and possibly question that individual’s sanity. Yet no matter how baffled we might be, a part of us might be curious—dare I say interested—in this weird combination of automobiles and Europe’s favorite sport. If you are one of the few that fall into this category, and you have a few friends who are willing to indulge in your insanity, I can highly recommend you check out Rocket League.
Rocket League is the rising hit indie title from developer Psyonix which puts you in control of a car midst a soccer match. Yes, I’m serious. The physics-based game focuses primarily on you and, typically, two other players facing off against another team of three. Your goal is to hit the ball with your vehicle in an attempt to score on the enemy goal, while of course protecting your own. Smacking into a ball full speed allows you to jettison it in that direction, but a skilled ‘goalie’ may use their double jump ability to deny you any glory from the replay cam. In that regard, Rocket League offers a unique experience in that it looks and feels like an arcade game, but has the skill cap of a fighting game. Seeing boost pads on the ground light up neon orange and the lively colors of most stadiums transports you back to your days at an arcade playing classic racing games like Artic Thunder. But then watching the pros have complete control over the ball as they use their momentum perfectly, all while you are running up the stadium walls, shows just how serious it can get.
Thinking that you can push a ball around in a car no problem will be your first mistake. Rocket League isn’t something you can perform well in after just picking up a controller, which you will want to do. The game recommends playing with an Xbox controller on Steam once you start for a good reason as keyboard and mouse do feel awkward to operate in comparison. Jumping in, you have your basic driving controls between throttle, brake, emergency brake, and nitro. Nitro is gathered by running over the previously mentioned boost pads scattered about the map, with rare ‘super boosts’ appearing occasionally to fill up your nitrous completely. Other than that, Rocket League also gives players the ability to jump in the air once before boosting yourself again in whatever direction you are inputting. These jumps come in handy when needing to correct a ball’s path on the fly or when you want to intercept a shot on your goal. The game also offers a ‘ball-cam,’ which focuses your camera entirely on the ball as it soars across the field. While I initially thought this camera mode would be the best, I quickly learned its tendency to detract your view from driving and the positioning of your fellow players to be quite unhelpful.
Speaking to the driving and mechanics of the game, there is a clear emphasize on physics and control. Boosting yourself into a ball with no clear intent to hit it in a specific way will often result in it flying away diagonally. Speed up too much on your way to hit a clear shot and you’ll overshoot the goal. My biggest recommendation is to show some restraint—it’s ok to break sometimes when you want to line yourself up. The game’s precise nature also leads to this need for control. You will need to turn at the right times and slow down if you plan on ever hitting the ball, unless if you’d much prefer to drive up the walls of the stadium and find yourself useless for a few precious seconds. You won’t be getting any sympathy from the game in terms of getting the perfect shot in your head, you need to work for it as the hitboxes on the ball don’t give you any leeway. Mechanically, the gameplay is very solid and gives players the ability to master their skills in boosting and jumping with practice. Many pros I’ve seen in my matches are able to boost in and jump just the right way to edge the ball into my goal from just about any angle. Yet that’s not all there is to Rocket League. There’s two other players on your team.
Much like the normal sport it draws from, Rocket League places an emphasis on teamwork. Whether you play the standard 3 vs 3 mode, 2 vs 2 mode, or chaotic 4 vs 4, some level of coordination is required. Opponents won’t let you guide the ball in for a clear shot, often smacking into you or the ball to lead it astray. More than that, the pressure of this happening doesn’t allow for the precise aiming necessary. It’s imperative you work off each other’s shots. Being able to predict the ball’s path after your teammate knocks it in the air will be key in making most game winning goals. Just as important is defense, in which one player may stay in your goal in an attempt to block with their jumps while the other two try to push the game back to the opponent’s side of the field. Another element of defense is your ability to blow up your opponents for a few seconds if you slam into them while at full speed. Getting rid of one player may allow you to take back control and clear the ball. However if your ally gets in your way while you’re trying to wreck an enemy, you’ll both be thrown off course. Communication is key in making big plays and maintaining a solid position on the field. Rocket League truly shines when you’re playing with friends, talking to them with the game’s in-game voice chat or on another voice call software.
If you can’t play with your friends, I think Rocket League suffers a bit in terms of enjoyment. The random people you are paired up with are probably not going to use the in-game voice chat, instead opting for the sub-par text chat available through the d-pad. Preselected phrases like ‘take the shot’ don’t come close to the level of communication needed to succeed in my opinion. If you’re not one for online, I’m afraid there isn’t much to do either as you’ll be forced to play with AI teammates that don’t really come close to their human counterparts. Training mode is available for those that wish to hone their skills in being a goalie, hitting aerial balls, or shooting goals on their own. The ability to practice each area of expertise, as well as just practicing in an open field with no time limit, is greatly appreciated. A season mode, which will pit your team composed of you and the AI against other AI teams, is available to play out. It will give you the experience of playing an actual sport in a season, with a rotating schedule of opponents, and gives you a great level of customization in how many teams you want in the bracket and how many rounds will be played. Yet even this falls flat compared to the experience of playing with friends online. At its roots, Rocket League is primarily a multiplayer game—and as such, I can’t really recommend unless you have friends to play with.
However, the level of customization offered in your car—in its model, decals, color, flags, hats, and stream it shoots when using nitro—is good enough to make most auto-aficionados happy. While it may take a while to unlock all these goodies, the game does a good job at rewarding you with one present every match. Also great is the introduction of Mutator mode, which will manipulate things like gravity and ball size randomly to mix up the gameplay. This alleviates some boredom you might find after playing hours of the same mode, though I do wish there was a bit more variety outside of Mutator. The game could benefit greatly from other variations in standard gameplay, such as obstacles on some of the fields, as to avoid it getting slightly stale. Finally, Psyonix has done a great job with its DLC, incorporating famous icons like Back to the Future and Mad Max in vehicles such as the DeLorean and a wasteland like stadium.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoy Rocket League. I have great memories like blocking a ball from getting into my goal after boosting off the wall and soaring across my goal post. Or when I made the game winning goal in overtime after minutes of the ball going back and forth between our side of the field and our opponent’s. Having the ability to customize my ride and make it shoot out propulsion gel from Portal 2 is always great, and experiencing low gravity while flying across the entire field is nuts. Yet a lot of my enjoyment came from experiencing the game with my friends—having us scream at each other as we frantically scrambled to take back a losing game or laugh as we slammed into one another over and over. I don’t think I’d have nearly as much fun if I hadn’t had them to play with, or if I didn’t play the online mode. That being said, Rocket League will offer you a great team experience if you’ve got some friends willing to play—and its mechanics and tight controls will give you something that, when mastered, is truly incredible to watch.
- Really fun if you have friends.
- Looks and plays well.
- Great post-launch support with fun DLC themed after Mad Max and Back to the Future.
- Wacky possibilities with the random mode.
- Ample opportunities to practice given multiple tutorials.
- Not nearly as enjoyable solo.
- Could use a bit more variety in gameplay.
- Gameplay can get stale after a while.